Reading American Photographs, Another Photographic Reality, and Mexico

  By John Veldhoen

There are certain keywords that seem opposed to one another, so much so that people sometimes believe in the opposition of words as things-in-themselves. When tech is set in opposition to ideas, ideas become hardened into facts,  facts become truths, and truths become reality. The hard turn away from this progress is to say that things are only things, as a way of solving the problem of having faith in this or that. Ok, ok, I get it, “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological”. Still though, while tech produces a cultural residue that affects the way in which it is used and it is made, and how we see the world, this residue is also independent of the means used to produce it. Photography is primarily a means of expression and not a mechanical operation. This brand of thinking is not at all a new one. One art-historian noticed, for instance, that a kind of heraldic ornamentation seen in tapestries stemmed from a desire for symmetry preexisting the development of the looms that made those designs possible. At root, everything is a feeling before it is a technique, or a tool, or an idea, but this tradition of art-history has mostly passed into obscurity, including the writings of Alois Riegl, Willhelm Worringer, and Otto Rank, but also Hans Sedlmayr (who deserves total disrepute).

So, a weaving approach to write about a book I have wanted to read for years, Alan Trachtenberg’s “Reading American Photographs”. Time gets in the way, and I have had to put it off. But, I recently ordered a few copies for The Camera Store, and I am now quarter of the way through. I get slowed down when I read history, I get side-tracked with historiography, and get down into the reeds. When Trachtenberg makes the aside that the Greek word for theory derives from the same word for sight (also where we get the word for theatre), I wonder if it is because Trachtenberg wants to stage his writing regarding Oliver Wendell Holmes’ essay on stereoscopy, and as a student of history, and historiography, accent his organization of facts? I don’t blame him, it is super interesting! But I am verging on, like, abstraction here. Then again, the point-of-view I was writing about in the field of art-history above literally embraced abstraction, and some might say verged towards it. This is all to say that Trachdenberg is not an art-historian of this mould, and has written a textual history, and I think the finest one on the subject, but it still makes me question how the evolution of photographic consciousness can be traced this way. I feel like the medium of photography (and the technology that supports it) are secondary to the visionary imagination of the photographer, and that kind of vision is the most important evaluative criteria of all.

Two books from the University of Texas each illustrate different expressions of personal, photographic vision: One is Aaron Siskind’s “Another Photographic Reality”, which is about the drama of the frame. I think Another example of vision is Mark Cohen’s “Mexico” (I am told this is not the best book of Cohen’s, but I think much of it is great). As a colleague said to me recently, Cohen’s love and sympathy for people is evident in his pictures. Cohen and Siskind’s pictures illicit emotion first. Tech has little bearing. UTP releases seminal American photographic work, mostly of a kind that overlaps a “near-documentary” mindset that accepts reality (abstractions included). I am anticipating orders of monographs to arrive soon of work by Ralph Gibson and Garry Winogrand from UTP as well, both of whose work are becoming less known, which is surprising, especially in the case of Winogrand. Without seeing these pictures, it may be harder to understand why some photographs made today are regarded as highly as they are. Which is not a good reason to look at these older bodies of work. A better one is that they are beautiful in the present.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.